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Is It Time for the U.S. to Partner With China in Space?

The Long March 3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe is prepared for launch at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang, China.

The Long March 3B rocket carrying the Chang'e-3 lunar probe is prepared for launch at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Xichang, China. // AP

Only three countries have ever managed to launch humans into space: the United States, Russia and China.

The U.S., however, hasn't done so for three years since the retirement of its space-shuttle program, and NASA pays Russia $70 million a seat to send its astronauts to the International Space Station. But the Ukraine crisis is starting to take a toll on U.S.-Russian space relations, and transporting astronauts with private American spaceflight technology is still a few years away.

It may be time for the U.S. to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and invite it to join us in space exploration.

"China is an obvious addition to the international [human spaceflight] partnership, both for the ISS program and beyond," Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut, said during a hearing of the Senate Science and Space Subcommittee on Wednesday. "China is in a position to provide hardware and capability in-kind."

China is not one of the 15 participants of the International Space Station project, in part because of U.S. opposition. Last summer, its space agency successfully transported crew to and from a space station.

Chiao's remarks echoed the geopolitical climate of the early 1990s. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the U.S. asked Russia to join its International Space Station project. At the time, Russia couldn't afford to build a station of its own, and the U.S. was behind schedule and needed help. It was a win-win situation.

The U.S. could reach out to China in the same way now, said Susan Eisenhower, president of the Eisenhower Group and author of two books on U.S.-Russia space relations (and President Dwight Eisenhower's granddaughter).

"I think we engaged the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union not to do them a favor, but to do us a favor," Eisenhower told the subcommittee. "We gained unprecedented access to some of their most sensitive facilities. If we look at the China situation, we could well gain every bit as much as they might in terms of understanding how our two societies view this important area, and also to kind of give us that access in China."

And China, which has so far worked alone in space, may be warming to the idea. "There is a change in the Chinese attitude, with a call for cooperation in space," said Jean-Yves Le Gall, head of the French space agency CNES, during a January conference of space experts. "And Americans aren't reticent—on the contrary."

Chiao said he was at first skeptical about working with the Russians, but then became a "big believer" in international cooperation. Gaining access to new technology outweighs some security risks, he said.

Some subcommittee members weren't so sure. "China in particular poses a pretty interesting dilemma for us," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The U.S. needs to be "careful" and "realistic" about cooperating with a space exploration rival, he said, and China could use a partnership to steal sensitive national security information.

Chiao told him that NASA has "safeguards put in place so there are no improper technology transfers" against the Russians that it would use for the Chinese.

Rubio also lamented NASA's dependence on Russia for astronaut transport. NASA isn't happy about that either, and it's not pleased with Rubio and his fellow members of Congress. The space agency has said that attempts to bring human spaceflight back to U.S. soil have been stymied by reduced federal funding in recent years.

"Had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches—and the jobs they support—back to the United States next year," a NASA spokesman said last week. "The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It's that simple."

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